Q & A with Pat Merriman with Dunn County State’s Attorney

“Why did my friend get arrested, at a traffic stop, on an arrest warrant that was over 6 years old on some minor offense?”

Pat Merriman

“Why did my friend get arrested, at a traffic stop, on an arrest warrant that was over 6 years old on some minor offense?” A- I got this disgruntled telephone call on Christmas Day from an unhappy constituent who wanted to know why our “new” Sheriff didn’t simply let a traffic offender go when Triple-I/NCIC (the state criminal information computer system) showed an active warrant out of Dunn County, North Dakota, for failing to appear and pay fines & costs.  It was such a trivial matter after all and TS obviously labored under an assumption that obeying court orders was a new phenomenon since our most recent elections this past November. So…let’s establish the way the criminal justice system actually works in the United States, North Dakota and every real jurisdiction outside American television. First, our judges have final say over whether/not something is legal or illegal. That’s called a check & balance to make sure that no one is abusing the system. And, since the judges have that final say, both I and the Sheriff obey court orders because failure to do so is a crime in North Dakota, see, 12.1-10-05, NDCC; or, contempt of court; which both provide for jail time if either the defendant subject to the court order, or the Sheriff who is supposed to execute (obey) the order, fail to comply.

Since peace officers seek to avoid contempt and criminal charges, we are tasked with obeying those orders. Not a court “suggestion”, it’s an order. And, an arrest warrant is just a court order to apprehend a person. So, if a North Dakota or federal judge issued the warrant, it is always supposed to go into the computer system and, if any peace officer in North Dakota stops/detains the subject of that warrant–let’s just say for a speeding ticket; the offender may not go to jail for that speeding ticket but, he/she certainly is going to jail on an outstanding arrest warrant which has been issued by an American judge. It’s not “discretionary” with the officer–it’s mandatory.

Second, this caller seemed to think that this “policy” was something new in Dunn County and I beg to differ. I have never heard of any competent peace officer (who actually obeyed the law) who just put the old warrant in his back pocket, a shelf or a safe somewhere and pretended like it never existed.

Or, who called and gave an offender a heads-up to avoid the warrant from being executed. That’s what defense attorneys are for–to get warrants recalled and fines/costs paid. Particularly, on a bench warrant for a failure to appear. For that order to get issued, the offender had to fail to appear at a court proceeding and the judge decided to give him/her a free ride, room and board for the next court appearance to insure that they got there. In Dunn County, particularly on DUI & DUS cases involving out-of-state offenders, it is a rampant problem when these guys go back home and “forget” about their court obligations. For the system to work, there has to be a way to force offenders to meet their obligations and, the system requires that the offender keep track of their own calendar.

Essentially, arrest warrants last forever until the offender either meets their obligations or, a judge rescinds that order. And, remember, even in Mayberry, Andy Taylor obeyed state court orders. Since he was also a justice of the peace, I guess, he could rescind his own municipal warrants; but, I never saw an episode where he told a judge to take a hike and played Hide-the-ball with an arrest warrant. So, if you ever missed a court date or got arrested for something in the past and can’t remember how it went, I would suggest you log-on to publicsearch.ndcourts.gov/default.aspx and enter your name just to make sure there isn’t an arrest warrant out there. Because if you do get stopped for speeding, and there is an outstanding warrant, the peace officer is going to handcuff, transport you to the SWMCC in Dickinson and, at least, you’re going to have to post bond or sit in jail until the judge calls your case. And…it doesn’t matter if it’s on Christmas Day or your birthday. We don’t want to spend those holidays in jail either because we ignored a court order and, the same holds true for the rest of the community. Sorry, no one is special or above the law.

Thanks for your questions/comments!

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